by Donna Mills
The following is part two of an interlude in the book, “A Road to Laurel,” which tells the story of a black man’s trial for alleged rape of a white woman. Although the story is about my father’s defense of the man, I included interludes that spoke of my own experience with race and prejudice. This one includes my experience in the Orthodox Church, with Fr. Moses as my priest. His oversight of my striving to shed any of my own prejudices was mostly silent and non-judgmental, which gave me the room in which to grow and a perfect model to follow.
Interlude III – cont’d
In the book “Black Boy,” written in 1943 by a native Mississippian, Richard Wright, about his life as an African American raised in the South, he bemoans the fact that the white culture experiences such different day to day life from the black. He wrote that the white culture has no idea how the black man has to adjust his nature to fit in. From his perspective, while he had “All my life…done nothing but feel and cultivate my feelings,” the white youth had “all their lives done nothing but strive for petty goals, the trivial material prizes of American life. We shared a common tongue, but my language was a different language from theirs.” It was true that he had suffered in certain ways, while it appeared that they no suffering at all. In fact, it may have been true that the shallowness he saw in their souls, which he described as “…like the syllables of popular songs,” was an accurate comparison of their experience compared to his – a life filled with hunger and disappointments, a life of fear and unwarranted reproach. As a young adult, Wright joined the Communist Party and felt that it had the answers for living in peace in this nation. Even there, however, he found himself to be misunderstood and finally, an outcast. After finding himself utterly alone, watching a Communist march he had been thrown out of, he wrote:
“My thoughts seemed to be coming from somewhere within me, as by a power of their own: It’s going to take a long and bloody time, a lot of stumbling and a lot of falling, before they find the right road. They will have to grope about blindly in the sunshine, butting their heads against every mistake, bruising their bodies against every illusion, making a million futile errors and suffering for them, bleeding for them, until they learn how to live.”
Wright spoke of a spiritual blindness, and hoped that his words would “…create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”
Fr. Moses, whose great-grandfather was a slave, taught our congregation that the fathers of our Church spoke of suffering as the way to follow Christ, to win the freedom, peace and joy our souls hope for. He also told us that the old gospel tunes that the slaves sang held a deep spirituality that came from their suffering. He displays in his African American Heritage Museum in Ash Grove, Missouri an iron neck clamp that had been passed down in his family, as well as slave dogtags for remembrance of the cruelty that took place.
Yet, the Socialistic or Communist approach, which seemed to promise suffering for none and appeared to champion the minorities, in the end yields only empty surfeiting and enslavement to its system. I puzzled, as my Dad must have, to determine how to find the “True North,” until I found the saving Grace of faith.
Attempting to convey the substance of this lesson to my children, I read to them from “Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry,” by Mildred Taylor. They cuddled beside me to hear a nightly chapter of the tale of a black family in Jackson, Mississippi whose children walked to a school just down the way from my elementary school, both named “Jefferson Davis Elementary,” but one was for black children and one for white, who were privileged to ride the bus. My three children found it hard to understand why, and wondered at the family’s plight. The words of wisdom from the family’s mother gave perspective:
“Baby, we have no choice of what color we’re born
or who our parents are, or whether we’re rich or poor.
What we do have is some choice over
what we make of our lives once we’re here.